It's a scream instantly recognizable to film fanatics, but where did it originate from?
[Editor's Note: This video essay is part of our "Everything You Need to Know" series created exclusively for No Film School by Senior Post. To revisit the first three entries in the series, click here, here, and here.]
We've all heard the infamous Wilhelm scream throughout our own personal moviegoing history. Resembling a cross between a high pitch shriek and a panicked animal call, the scream has been incorporated into hundreds of movies, typically when a character is in great danger.
How did this particular scream come to be one of the most used, go-to sound "effects" for sound editors working in post? And who the heck created the high pitch yelp to begin with? In the fourth video from our "Everything You Need to Know Series," we dive into the history and popularity of the sound choice and explain why, due to an over-reliance on its over-the-top comedic value, the scream may soon be put to bed.
The Wilhelm scream was named as such due to its use by the character Pvt. Wilhelm in the 1953 film, The Charge at Feather River, from director Gordon Douglas. However, Ben Burtt, a USC sound designer in the 1970s who one day was browsing through the Warner Bros. sound library, discovered that the Wilhelm scream (which Burtt himself named) didn't originate with that film.
A track labeled "man getting bit by alligator" was where the scream originally came from, and after doing some more research, Burtt discovered that the track was recorded for Raoul Walsh's Distant Drum in 1951. That film featured a scene in which a man does, in fact, get bit by an alligator. The obsession with the instantly recognizable wail took off from there.
Ben Burtt both credits and blames the internet for cinephiles' ravenous obsession with the scream.
The scream—recorded for Walsh's film three separate times (with the last one being the one we know and love)—became the defacto stock scream of choice, especially within Burtt's own work on films by fellow USC alum George Lucas: Star Wars: Episodes IV, V, and VI each feature the Wilhelm scream, as does Raiders of the Lost Ark from Lucas' good friend Steven Spielberg.
Burtt both credits and blames the internet for cinephiles' ravenous obsession with the scream; moviegoing has unintentionally become a game of "did you catch the Wilhelm scream in that one?" As a result, the scream may be, if not permanently put to bed, in need of a requested period of slumber.
Even so, the Wilhelm scream is very much an important part of film history, and its hundreds of "cameo appearances" create, as noted by sound editor Steve Lee, "a way of communicating between ourselves (sound editors) and saying hello to each other."
Which film do you most closely associate with the scream? Do you think it could ever make a comeback? Let us known down in the comments, and below check out the full list of films referenced in our video essay.
- A Goofy Movie (1995) dir. Kevin Lima
- Agent Cody Banks (2003) dir. Harald Zwart
- Anchorman (2004) dir. Adam McKay
- Caspar (1995) dir. Brad Silberling
- Deathproof (2007) dir. Quentin Tarantino
- Distant Drums (1951) dir. Raoul Walsh
- E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) dir. Steven Spielberg
- Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004) dir. Danny Leiner
- Inglourious Basterds (2009) dir. Quentin Tarantino
- Inside Out (2015) dir. Pete Docter
- Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003) dir. Quentin Tarantino
- Masters of Horror (2005-2007) created by Mick Garris
- Psycho (1960) dir. Alfred Hitchcock
- Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981) dir. Steven Spielberg
- Rawhide (1959-1965) created by Charles Marquis Warren
- Spaceballs (1987) dir. Mel Brooks
- Star Wars IV: A New Hope (1977) dir. George Lucas
- Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) dir. Irvin Kershner
- Star Wars VI: The Return of the Jedi (1983) dir. Richard Marquand
- Team America: World Police (2004) dir. Trey Parker
- The Charge At Feather River (1953) dir. Gordon Douglas
- The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) dir. Peter Jackson
- The Room (2003) dir. Tommy Wiseau
- The Wilhelm Scream (2011) performed by James Blake
- Toy Story (1995) dir. John Lasseter
- Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005) dir. Nick Park & Steve Box
- Walkin' With Michael Douglas (2015) performed by A Wilhelm Scream
- Wet Hot American Summer 2001) dir. David Wain